Chapter 1: They Looked Like Shadow People

The immense, ruby-red sun beat down relentlessly on the barren desert landscape. Dark orange dirt stretched on for miles, and eventually gave way to endless sand dune fields. Nestled in a bowl, naturally shaped by the surrounding dunes, lay a small, one-room hut. It was carefully built from scrap metal and wood, and sturdy enough to easily protect my younger sister and me, the sole inhabitants of this desolate world, from the brutal sandstorms that often tear across this deserted wasteland.

In this small hut, I laid on the small mat my sister, Nisme, and I shared. It was tucked in one of the corners of the room, haphazardly crooked from multiple nights of restless sleep. The only other objects that fit in our tiny home were a small table and two mismatched chairs, a working furnace, and a few shelves along the wall, proudly displaying the food and other objects we collected.

I remained still, quietly mesmerized by the millions of dust flecks that floated daintily through the air, illuminated by the streams of sunlight poking through the small holes in the walls. Nisme's slow, even breaths echoed throughout the room along with the whistling wind. Her tiny body was curled up into a ball, pressed firmly against my back. The heat was almost unbearable, but I put up with it for a while longer before deciding to get up. Nisme sighed discontentedly before also rising.

We both quickly dressed in our scavenging gear: loose cotton pants, light tunic, hood, and brown boots that came up to our knees. Most of the clothing was patchwork, because everything we owned was either found or made ourselves.

"How did you sleep last night?" I finally asked as I moved over to the shelves, beginning to prepare a small breakfast before we headed out for our daily rounds.

"Same as always," she replied half-heartedly, staring dazedly at the wall. I knew what she meant. We both sleep restlessly and have the same types of dreams; just flashes of color, sometimes a few words, and intense feelings. I just nodded silently and grabbed a rat, caught in a trap the previous day, to prepare it.

"Muiren. I had a dream last night, but it wasn't like my usual dreams," Nisme said, looking at me with a strange expression on her face. Her eyebrows were furrowed, yet a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.

"What happened in your dream?" I asked, looking back at the meat I had begun cooking over the stove.

"I was in the world we lived in before we appeared here, I'm pretty sure. You were there too, and we were surrounded by friends. I can't remember their names or faces though. We were all just sitting around together, laughing and eating good food," she said through a strained voice, as if she were trying to fight tears.

"That sounds like a nice dream, Nisme. There's no reason to cry. We'll figure out how to return there one day. However, until then, we just need to stay alive," I said, handing her a plate with a few bite-sized chunks of meat on it.

Nisme and I randomly appeared in this lifeless, dreamlike world a long time ago, with no memories of how or why we arrived, although we are certain we came from somewhere else. Neither of us have aged since we found each other, even though it feels as if years have passed. In fact, we aren't even sure that we're actually sisters. We look nothing alike, besides the fact we both have brown hair, but something about calling each other family brings comfort to this lonesome world.

Nisme is the type of person who can get down on herself easily, especially when she has a dream about the other world, so I had to stay positive. "You know, I feel good about today. Maybe we'll find something good in the Junkyards, or caught something tasty in the traps," I said with a smile, and ate a small chunk of meat. I always secretly gave her the larger pieces, and she has most likely noticed, but neither of us have said anything about it. She knows better than anyone that even if she were to bring it up, I still wouldn't change my ways.

"Eating fresh meat is nice," Nisme agreed as she also took a bite. This world seems to have strange rules that we have learned not to question. One is that Nisme and I can go on for what seems to be longer than normal without needing food, water, or sleep. However, if we go too long, we will succumb to what can only be described as an immense pain like our souls are being ripped from our bodies. Food has no taste to us, but the texture of fresh meat is preferable to the scraps of bread and other bits of food we find in the Junkyards.

"What do you think about visiting the Oasis to swim and get fresh water after our rounds today? We probably only have enough to get through one more day," I asked while carefully placing our mismatched plates on the shelf. The Oasis was the only thing that came to mind to cheer her up, because there aren't many enjoyable things to do here.

"That sounds nice. Let's do that," she said with a smile, her hazel eyes brightly shining up at me.

Nisme quickly finished off our large jug of water after carefully filling our canteens for the day. I packed both of our bags with a blanket, a piece of bread for emergency provisions, and a knife, fashioned out of a strip of cloth and shard of metal. When we were both done with preparations, I handed her one of the bags, and she handed me one of the canteens. We headed outside into the blazing heat, hugged each other goodbye, and trudged off in opposite directions.

It always bothered me that the sun never set in this world. It just sat, unmoving, in the very center of the sky, looking down upon us like a bloody, red eye. We never knew how much time had passed, as it was permanently in the middle of the day, so we slept when we were tired, scavenged after we woke up, and repeated the cycle.

However, not enough sleep in the world could make the trek across the Dune Fields easy. In fact, even though this is a daily activity, climbing up the very first Dune is still torture. It was nearly a straight uphill climb through loose, hot sand, with the sun beating down on my back. The wind was whipping harder than usual as well, which didn't make things any easier. By the time I got to the top, the house looked very small, and the dark silhouette of my precious little sister was a mere speck, as she was also at the top on the opposite side. I watched her tiny figure disappear before I also slid down the side of the Dune.

After what I would guess had been a few hours of travelling across sand dunes, I finally reached the Flats, which were what Nisme and I called the terrain of even, dark orange dirt that went on for miles, with a few rock formations dotting the unchanging landscape. We once decided to see if there was anything beyond the Flats, but even after at least a week's worth of walking, there was no trace of there ever being an end.

I was covered in sweat, and half of the water in my canteen was gone, but at least there wouldn't be any more climbing until the return trip. However, relief still washed over me when I finally reached the Junkyard, a place that can only be described as a collection of lost items. It was another strange rule of this world that we did not question. Every day, new items or even small animals, such as mice or rats, appear, and it is our job to collect them. The Junkyard was shaped as an odd, unnaturally formed crater, as there was no evidence answering how the very deep, but not particularly wide, crevices were formed. Out of the five Junkyards we know of, four of them are about the area of our one-room hut, however, one of the two on Nisme's route is about the size of half a football field.

I skillfully scaled down the wall of the crater using footholds I had carved out long ago, and landed softly in a layer of sand below, surprisingly deep due to the common devastating sand storms that blow large amounts of dirt into the crater. Carefully treading the perimeter, I looked for any objects that could be useful. However, all I could find were a few pieces of scrap metal, which were handy in their own way, but there wasn't anything unique or interesting. All the traps that had been set were empty as well, so I left the first Junkyard with nearly nothing.

After about another half hour of trudging through the endless red dirt, I reached the second Junkyard, and started the whole process over again. Unfortunately, it was the same outcome as before; only shards of metal and empty traps.

The wind was beginning to pick up even more than usual, so much that it was actually able to make me stumble around a little bit, and seemed to be coming from no particular direction. Although it was a short walk off the path I had worn well into the ground, I decided to stop in a small cave, carved in the side of a rock formation, and my only respite from walking, the sun, and wind.

The small opening at the base was a tight squeeze, but worth it, because the temperature was at least fifteen degrees cooler inside the humid, but protective, cave. It wasn't very large- just enough space for me to sit and rest. I gently set my bag down amongst the rocks and took a swig out of my canteen, nearly finishing the water that sloshed around inside. As I leaned against the cool wall, listening to the undulating sounds of the wind at the mouth of this mini paradise, I began to drift off to sleep.

Suddenly, a cool breeze washed over me. My eyes fluttered open, and I looked around at the small clearing where I was laying, surrounded by thick undergrowth that tangled throughout the tallest trees I had ever seen in my life. They stretched so high it seemed as if they could scrape against the bright blue sky and leave marks in the fluffy white clouds overhead.

A gentle voice began to echo throughout the dense woods. It started off as a whisper, so quiet that I mistook it as the wind at first. It progressively grew in volume, until I could make out that someone was repeatedly calling out, "Muiren." Somewhere inside of me recognized the voice, but I couldn't place to whom it belonged to. I stood and looked down at the ridiculous outfit I was wearing; an ugly olive green, tight-fitting, Victorian-style dress, and a Venetian style mask was on the ground next to where I had been laying. It was white with gold accents around the eyes, covered the entire face, and the eye holes were covered with black cloth. For some reason, the mask disturbed me, so I left without picking it up.

The voice began to get further away, quieter and quieter, and I felt myself beginning to wake up, because I could once again hear the wind and feel the cave wall at my back. "No! Wait, come back!" I shouted, but the sound seemed to evaporate as soon as the words left my lips, as if I were underwater. Desperately trying to find the owner of the strangely familiar and comforting voice, I sprinted through the brush and stumbled into another clearing. A few streams of light poured through the gaps between the giant leaves of the trees, making it seem as if the small creature in front of me were illuminated by the gods. A small, gleaming white hare sat proudly in the center of the clearing, looking at me expectantly with beady, bright red eyes. I approached it slowly, as it seemed wary of me, but cautiously stuck out its nose, as if it wanted to sniff my outstretched hand. The rabbit suddenly sat on its hind legs and spoke in a very strong, clear voice, although different from the one I heard before, "Tick. Tock."

I drew in a sudden breath and jerked my head up from my chest, smacking into the cave wall behind me. I looked around frantically. That voice was too clear. There's no way that part was a dream. "Nisme?" my tentative voice echoed through the cave, but my only response was the wind. I sighed as I wiped away the thin film of cold sweat from my forehead, and gently rubbed the bump forming on the back of my head. There was no way to know how long I'd slept, and Nisme was most likely already back home by now, so I couldn't stay any longer.

I reluctantly crawled out of the cave, and immediately almost knocked over by the rapidly increasing strength of the wind. It tore at my clothes and forcefully pushed me along the path that would lead me to the last Junkyard on my route. The dream replayed over and over again in my mind as I desperately looked for some reasoning behind it. "Maybe Nisme can figure out what it means. She's good at stuff like this," I mumbled, shifting the bag on my shoulder. Fortunately, this Junkyard wasn't too far away from the cave, so I was able to get there in about half an hour.

As I stared over the edge of the vast crater that would occasionally hold interesting treasures, something gold glinting amongst the dirt immediately caught my eye. Curious, I quickly crawled down the footholds and made a beeline for it, ignoring the shards of metal precariously sticking out from the sand. After gently brushing the dirt aside, I deduced that it was a locket. It was solid, smooth gold on the outside, with a long chain connected to it. After carefully laying it in my palm and flipping it over a few times, I noticed that there were some uniform scratches in it, almost as if someone were trying to carve their name into it. Unfortunately, the only legible letter was an "e" towards the end of the name or word. I tried pressing it in various places to see if it would open, and after a few minutes of frustration, I accidentally pressed a button on the top, and it popped open.

My stomach lurched. It wasn't a locket at all. It was a pocket watch. "Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock," the rabbit's strange voice reverberated through my head, louder and louder with each repetition. I stared wide-eyed at the watch's unmoving hands, the second hand ticked as furiously as it could to get past the twelve hour mark to no avail, but somehow, I felt mocked. I angrily shut the pocket watch and stuffed it in my bag, out of sight. There was nothing else to be found, not even fresh meat, and in the end only things I was returning home with was this devilish pocket watch and a couple pieces of scrap metal.

I crawled out of the crater, breathless, and a million thoughts buzzing around in my head. Everything is okay, everything is fine. It's just a stupid dream that probably doesn't mean anything. Just get home and talk it over with Nisme so you can relax. However, as I scanned the horizon, my stomach dropped to my feet.

A tumultuous, towering wall of sand was racing in the direction of my house at an alarming speed. Naturally, I broke into a sprint, making it across the Flats in record time, but even that was not fast enough. When I reached the Dune Fields, I began to lose hope. There's no way I'm going to make it before this storm blows in, I thought to myself as I began to climb up the first Dune, watching as the ominous clouds barreled across the wasteland, obliterating everything in its wake. Bright red lightning arced throughout the thick clouds, and I knew that if Nisme or I were to get caught in this particularly vicious storm, there was a very slim chance we could avoid suffocation.

I climbed the miles of Dune Fields, watching in horror as I raced against the dirt, and the rumble of the thunder shook the ground beneath my feet. The visibility was so low due to the debris in the air that I almost didn't realize I was atop the sand dunes surrounding our small hut. I'm going to make it, I thought with a smile, and slid down victoriously. At this point, the wind was whipping me so vigorously, it felt as if I were being pulled by a magnet away from the house. Finally, I firmly grasped the handle of the heavy door, put my foot on the outside wall, and pulled as hard as I could. The door opened against the wind just enough for me to squeeze through, and violently sealed shut behind me.

"Hey, Nisme, I'm not sure if you've noticed the storm outside, but I don't think we'll be able to make it to the Oasis today," I chuckled as my eyes adjusted to the dark room, due to the clouds blotting out the immense sun. I was met with silence. "Nisme?" I nervously called out. She's not here, I realized as my stomach began to churn.

"…ren! Muiren! Muiren!" I could barely make out the familiar voice of my little sister's screams over the howling wind. Sand began to violently blow through the cracks in the walls, and the house let out small creaks from the intense winds.

"Nisme?!" I yelled back, rushing to the sounds of her cries. She desperately slammed her hands against the door, the echoes from the metal reverberating through the room. I frantically threw my full body weight against the sturdy pieces of metal and wood, however, any progress was futile due to the high winds, keeping the house vacuum sealed.

The tugs from the other side of the door were progressively getting much weaker, and then her awful retching from breathing in large amounts of sand began. As I listened to her gagging, tears streamed down my cheeks uncontrollably. I thought I heard Nisme say something in between coughing fits, but wasn't sure because of the howling wind. Suddenly, her force on the outside stopped altogether, and I could hear a small thump of her body collapsing against the door.

"Hold on a minute, Nisme! I'll get this thing open, just keep pulling!" I hysterically cried out. My shoulder was beginning to bruise from repeatedly slamming myself against the door, but it wasn't even budging anymore due to the severity of the storm. Frantically, I looked all around the house for anything that could help me save her. After scanning a thinner part of the metal interior, an idea came to me. I grabbed a knife from one of the shelves and began wildly stabbing at the wall. However, I froze when Nisme's rough voice called out above the wind, "Muiren, no. Please, if you… break… wall… both die." I knew she was right. Even if I were to create an opening, we would no longer have the protection from the dust, and we would both suffocate. However, I wasn't giving up. The knife slipped carelessly out my loose grip, and I began madly slapping at the metal lining the inside of the door, which resulted in gruesome gashes along the inside of my hands. The thick, crimson liquid ran down my fingers and arms, falling to the floor in a near metronomic manner. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. After staring dazedly at my hands for a few moments, I violently shook my head to rid myself of these toxic thoughts. The door only needed to be ajar for a moment; that was all I needed to save my precious little sister, my only companion in this wasteland.

"Muiren?! Help me!" Nisme frantically shrieked. When I peeked through one of the slits I had made with my knife, an unbelievable sight was in store for me. Maybe it was the blinding sand, or my mad desperation that was making me see things, but somewhere inside, I knew it was true. Beings that had the profile of a person, but possessed the qualities of shadows, were completely enveloping my baby sister. Her screams echoed out over the desolate landscape, falling on my ears only. The rules of this world are strange, but my sister and I, the only inhabitants of this wasteland, have learned to never question them.